Crossraguel Abbey is one of the best preserved, most varied and most interesting of the many abbey ruins that are dotted across Scotland. It can be found just to the south of the A77, about two miles south-west of Maybole. As you drive away from Maybole, keep a lookout on your left for the remains of Baltersan Castle, which comes into view just before you see Crossraguel Abbey itself, also on the left. The car park is at the east end of the site, close to the entrance and the custodian's office.
Crossraguel Abbey's story begins in about 1215, when the Earl of Carrick granted lands and churches in Carrick (this part of Ayrshire) to the Cluniac Abbey at Paisley, on condition it founded a daughter house at Crossraguel. The name of the site came from an early Christian cross, the Cross of Riaghail, which stood nearby.
Paisley Abbey preferred to use the income from this land and property to support itself, and initially built only a small chapel at Crossraguel. The dispute was finally resolved at the Episcopal Court in Glasgow in 1244, which decreed that a Cluniac monastery had to be founded at Crossraguel.
The abbey's powers and lands increased over the following century and in 1404 King Robert III gave the abbot what today would be described as full delegated powers to exercise authority on the King's behalf across a large part of Ayrshire.
The original chapel was replaced by an abbey church in the late 1200s. The early 1300s saw Crossraguel Abbey caught up in the Wars of Independence with England, during which it was badly damaged. Much of what you see today dates back to extensive rebuilding that started in the late 1300s and continued through much of the 1400s.
Abbeys in Scotland tend to share many of the same elements and are usually built to a fairly predictable plan: an abbey church with a cloister to its south surrounded by ranges of buildings. Crossraguel Abbey has these elements, but in slightly unexpected form and interwoven with a number of unusual features. This makes exploring the remains all the more interesting and intriguing.
The best place to start your tour of the abbey is in the imposing gatehouse at the west end of the site. This was built by Abbot William Kennedy in about 1530. The gatehouse has been restored to its condition in Abbot Kennedy's time; and climbing to its top provides an excellent view across the whole site, as shown in the header photo.
The most obvious of the expected elements of the abbey is the abbey church, running as usual along the north site of the site. The south wall of the nave dates back to the 1200s, but much of the rest emerged in the late 1300s.
By the standards of somewhere like Jedburgh Abbey or Melrose Abbey, the abbey church is small in size and simple in overall plan. It comprises just a nave at the west and and a choir with a beautifully rounded apse at the east end, with a sacristy off the choir. The wall dividing the nave and choir was added in the 1500s.
To the south of the church is the cloister. The west range has disappeared, as has much of the south range. But the east range contains a beautifully restored chapter house with remarkable acoustics. South east of the east range are the interesting remains of the abbot's house, complete with some fascinating vaulted stonework.
The abbot's house was turned over to other uses when Abbot William Kennedy built Crossraguel's most unexpected feature in about 1530. This is the virtually free standing tower house of fairly traditional design at the south-east corner of the site. Abbot Kennedy thought this a residence more befitting his status on the national stage than the earlier residence.
To the south of the gatehouse is the south court. This includes the foundations of an unusual row of five small houses along its southern wall, probably used as living quarters for individual monks late in the abbey's life. And at the south-west corner of the abbey site is a two storey dovecot.
With the arrival of the Reformation in 1560, Crossraguel's life as an active religious community came to an end. The last abbot, Quintin Kennedy, died in 1564 and a commendator, Alan Stewart, was appointed by the Crown to oversee the land and property owned by the abbey.
In 1569 Stewart signed over the abbey, its lands and revenues to Gilbert Kennedy, the 4th Earl of Cassilis. According to a complaint later made by Stewart to the Privy Council, his agreement was only extracted by the Earl by roasting him over a fire at Dunure Castle. Two further commendators succeeded Stewart.
In 1617, well after the last of the monks who lived out their lives at Crossraguel had died, the remaining income from the abbey lands passed to the Bishop of Dunblane.